Eimear Ryan: A new jersey deepens our attachment to club and county colours

What’s in a geansaí? To this day, I have a deep grá for the black and red — but if things had gone a different way, would I be mad about maroon and white instead?
Eimear Ryan: A new jersey deepens our attachment to club and county colours

This year’s Tipp jersey is in keeping with what’s in vogue, all colour blocking and minimalism. Picture: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

When I was in primary school in the ’90s, it was a rite of passage to play in the school hurling league. From second class upwards, anyone interested in hurling — boys and girls alike — could participate. Captains would be selected from fifth and sixth class and all other interested players would be randomly allocated to a team. For a lot of us, it was our introduction to competitive, organised sport, and we approached the lunchtime fixtures as if walking out onto Croke Park.

We had two sets of jerseys: The red school set (every captain’s first choice) and a maroon set of mysterious origin. The maroon jerseys were well-worn and oversized, falling sometimes to the knees of the Rang a Dó players. It’s only recently, in a chat with my dad and uncle, that I discovered the esteemed provenance of those maroon jerseys. They were in fact the jerseys used by our local club, Moneygall, up until the 1960s, at which point the club colours changed. The story goes that one of the lads was away at boarding school in Kilkenny, where the school jerseys were black and red. His school gear was so admired when he came back to hurl for Moneygall in the summer that the club decided to change their colours to match.

I love this story because it demonstrates the charmingly accidental nature of club colours.

What’s in a geansaí? To this day, I have a deep grá for the black and red — but if things had gone a different way, would I be mad about maroon and white instead? So often, the jerseys we promise to fight and occasionally bleed for are not the result of deep symbolism, but because someone took a liking to a certain colour combo: no more, no less.

As a Tipp woman, I love the blue and gold, and considered it a good omen that my adoptive club, the Barrs, has the same colours. But the Tipp colours are also somewhat arbitrary, adopted since 1925 from the Tubberadora jersey (now Boherlahan), who were county champions at the time. Prior to that, the Tipp team changed jerseys each year to reflect the colours of the reigning county champions — hence the now-famous white and green Bloody Sunday shirt, taken from the Grangemockler jersey. Even the blood and bandage has an accidental origin: When Cork’s original blue jerseys were confiscated by British soldiers in 1919, they borrowed the shirts of the Father O’Leary Temperance Association team, and have been red ever since.

Our attachment to our county colours can be insensible at times. While in recent years teams have gotten better at rolling out the away jerseys for certain fixtures, you only have to go back to 2017 for some eye-melting encounters: Dublin vs Laois in the All-Ireland qualifiers; Galway vs Wexford in the national league; Cork vs Galway in the minor hurling final. (I’m blaming Galway a lot here — those maroon jerseys again.)

While the players on the pitch might be able to distinguish friend from foe, it was much harder for the viewers in the stands or at home.

Maybe we could learn something from our League of Ireland cousins. Consider the moxy of the Bohemians-Bob Marley mashup, a jersey that was halted in its tracks when first unveiled in 2018 due to a lack of image rights. However, that has been rectified and the new away jersey — complete with a watermark of Marley’s face and Rastafarian colours — is now available for pre-order, with 10% of profits going towards soccer and musical equipment for MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland).

The jersey commemorates Marley’s 1980 concert in Dalymount Park, his only Irish show and one of his last ever concerts before his death in 1981 at the age of just 36. Marley was also, famously, a fairly handy soccer player. (Interestingly, Ajax also have a Marley-inspired jersey, though their connection — the adoption of the Marley song ‘Three Little Birds’ as a fan anthem — seems even more tenuous than Bohs’.)

A hurling team would never get away with such swagger. Can you imagine a Rory Gallagher Cork shirt, a Thin Lizzy Dublin one, or a Pogues-inspired Tipp jersey? In fact, the current fashion in GAA jerseys seems to be the simpler, the better, with Limerick’s sponsorless jersey being a particular flex. Fades, swooshes, and complicated stripe patterns are out: These days it’s all colour blocking and minimalism.

Case in point: The new Tipperary jersey, unveiled last week, inspired by the classic 2001 Louise Kennedy-designed shirt that Tipp wore while winning their first All-Ireland in a decade.

Probably inevitably, jerseys that are associated with success have a particular aura to them. The clean lines of the current Clare jersey aren’t a million miles away from the All-Ireland-winning one from 1995, Pat O’Donnell sponsor and all. The 1994 Offaly jersey, its sunny yellow offset with the stark black Carroll Meats logo, is a GAA design classic. And has any sponsor ever looked as iconic on a Cork jersey as O2 in the mid-2000s?

Some jerseys deserved more titles than they got.

The Dublin jersey of the late ’90s and early ’00s, with its flowing Arnotts script, was a crossover fashion statement (I owned the navy goalkeeper version). Wexford’s 2000s sojourn into psychedelic purple was a bold move, and I always love seeing those jerseys pop from the crowd at Wexford games.

Sligo wore white for most of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s before a 2001 Croke Park clash with Kildare necessitated a change. They’ve been back to black ever since.

And sometimes you just have to think outside the box. That’s what Mayo did for their 2021 alternate jersey by holding a colouring competition, #YourTeamYourDesign, for the primary school kids of the county.

The winner was six-year-old Aoife Dunne from Swinford, whose innovative design — a vertical stripe instead of a horizontal one, a splash of teal instead of green — was a breath of fresh air. Here’s to a long career in GAA fashion design.

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